Choosing Project Management Software

Choosing Project Management Software is your first and initial important step. In the Everyday Project Management book, the author Jeff Davidson provides details about choosing project management software tools, why and how you should do this very helpful for the entire lifecycle activity. Software tools are important topic in the BVOP project managers training program and on the project management training course of PMA.

In this chapter, you learn the types of software programs that are available, their capabilities, and which software functions are crucial, and you are given some guidelines for selection.

Project management software (PM software) is available at a variety of prices

Project management software (PM software) is available at a variety of prices, offering a wide variety of functions. You can use software to plan, initiate, track, and monitor your progress. You can develop reports, print individual charts, and at the touch of a screen (or a click of a mouse) e-mail virtually any aspect of your project plans to any team member, top manager, executive, or other stakeholder.

Many earlier versions of PM software focused on planning, scheduling, and results. Tools for communicating, analyzing your progress, finding critical paths, and asking “what-if?” questions were sometimes lacking, depending on whose software you employed. Today, there are many options among a multitude of vendors.

Also, until recently, for many projects, word processing, database, and spreadsheet software was often used instead of project management software. Of note:

  While fewer people used PM software previously, project participants and stakeholders usually did see the generated output.

  PM software quickly took hold because it enabled more customization than many other types of software.

  PM software tended to be more expensive than commonly used software, but the costs were offset by gains in productivity and in managerial effectiveness.

Leave a Good Thing Alone

In the past few decades, project management software went from being expensive and crude to less expensive and highly functional, then to even less expensive, but sometimes confusing. When Harvard Project Manager was launched in 1983, it represented a breakthrough in PM software. Its main focus was on project budgeting, scheduling, and resource management.

With Harvard Project Manager you could generate Gantt charts, PERT charts, and CPM charts, plus a variety of other charts and tables. It was considered an integrated project planning and control package and sold for as little as 30% of the price of its less functional predecessors.

Three decades later, competition among PM software vendors heated up, prices came down, and functionality went sky high. While some packages can be hard to learn, many are relatively easy to learn. Consider your own experience in using word processing or graphics software. Aren’t there earlier versions of current programs that were easier and more convenient? You were able to install and learn them in days, and go on your merry way.

With today’s software, if you are starting from square one, you might have to attend a training session. If you have a flair for software, perhaps you can be up and running quickly. Vendors embracing Agile or otherwise tend to include everything, plus the kitchen sink. This gives them the opportunity to design splashy ads listing umpteen features and to charge high prices. Realistically, how many people are true power users who would use most of the advertised features?

Whose Choice and Whose Job Is It?

If your organization or department already uses or prefers a certain type of software, then your decision, understandably, is already made. Your quest becomes mastering that software—or at least the parts critical for you to know. The upside is that if a brand of PM software is the preferred choice in your workplace, and other projects employ such software, you are fortunate: Other project managers or staff will know how to use it and can serve as ad-hoc software gurus to you.

When there are no experienced users in your work setting, and you have options, which kind of software might you choose? In general, select a popular and well-known package. The price is likely to be competitive, stakeholders likely will have heard of the vendor or the software, and you won’t have to vigorously defend your decision to higher-ups.

If you and you alone will have responsibility for learning the software, you need to build in the time and add in the expense to your budget, for it will take you time to learn it or to take a course, and your time is costly.

While it seems obvious that you as the project manager are likely to be the primary user of PM software, please rethink that assumption. Depending on what you are managing and the dynamics of your organization, if you are the primary software user, you might spend the brunt of your time working with the software, with precious little time left for forming and building your team, maintaining reporting requirements, and offering the day-to-day level of project management that the venture requires.

Recognizing the danger of having a project manager become too immersed with PM software, some organizations have established support groups or even provide internal software gurus, especially for larger projects. These gurus serve as in-house experts and can be lent to project management teams for the duration of the project.

The gurus work directly with project managers, incorporating their feedback, answering questions, and undertaking whatever types of analysis the project manager requests. They routinely maintain schedules, budget various reports, and track the allocation of resources. An experienced software guru knows how and how often to share project-related reports with project staff and project stakeholders.

What’s Your Pleasure?

Assuming that your organization will not be lending someone to you who’ll handle the brunt of PM software activities, and assuming no particular program of choice has been established, how do you go about selecting software? Begin by acknowledging what kind of user you’re going to be, which is largely determined by two elements: the size of your project and how technical you are.

For small projects of a few months or less with zero-to-two staff, it’s possible that no project management software is necessary! How so? You might already possess the software and software knowledge you need to be effective in managing a small project. We’re talking about the aforementioned spreadsheets, word processing programs, a graphics or drawing program, and the functionality to generate tables, graphs, flowcharts, and other diagrams.

Though somewhat makeshift, the combination of reports and exhibits that you can muster with your current software and skills might be suitable for your project needs. Your current software could be entirely adequate if the basic work breakdown structure (WBS) and a Gantt chart or two are all you require and if you don’t necessarily have to create a critical path.

For projects involving four or more people, extending several months or longer, with a variety of critical resources, it makes sense to invest in some type of software, even if it isn’t necessarily PM software per se. Many calendar and scheduling software programs come with built-in functions. They let you produce tables, devise Gantt charts, and even maintain a schedule for four to 10 people. Nevertheless, all things considered, with at least four people, on a project lasting several months, procuring some dedicated PM software makes good sense.

The Project Management Institute at www.pmi.org and the Project Management Control Tower at www.4pm.com each offer a variety of books, audiovisual materials, training guides, classroom training, seminars, and online training. The website www.ProjectManager.com offers a host of career opportunities for project managers and those seeking to enter the profession, as well as books, guides, and audiovisual tools.

Dedicated Project Management Software

Inexpensive PM software is your best option if you don’t have anyone else in the organization who can serve as guru, and also when you wish to automate rather than manually generate critical reports and charts. Or, if you’re managing many people over many months, and have 1,000 + tasks and subtasks to complete, you’d seek PM software for midrange project managers.

The competition among dedicated PM software vendors embracing Agile, or not, is keen. Notable suppliers include Workfront, Primavera, Mavenlink, Basecamp, Asana, Easy Projects, and Trello. (See Chapter 12, “A Sampling of Popular Programs,” for an overview of PM software.) Lower-end programs such as TeamGantt, Project Kickstart, and Milestone Simplicity can also help you generate plans, project reports, and basic charts, and they don’t require significant learning time. They are both affordable and easily downloadable, instantly.

You can spend anywhere from $200 to $6,000 using the more feature-laden versions of software named above. Such packages will give you the full range of tools sought by even veteran project managers on multiyear projects.

High-end project management software is designed for the longest duration, largest, and most involved types of projects. Yet, if you are a high-end user, you wouldn’t have picked up this book! Here, we are talking about software that can range from a few thousand to many thousands of dollars. Learning such packages could take weeks. Even at the high end, so many programs are available that you might need a consultant to make such a selection, and the process could take weeks or months.

Regardless of your level of PM software knowledge, your selection might prove to be a key factor in overall project success. Alas, many project managers find that the software they chose (and purchased!) is too complex and too unwieldy to use for the entire project. Some end up using only an element of the software, such as budgeting or scheduling; some use it only for making charts; others may end up abandoning the software midstream. In such cases, a lot of scrambling follows because whatever the software was used for now needs to be done manually.

Will you decide to schedule and track subtasks and tasks based on identified start times and stop times for each staff member, all the time? Or will you rely on your staff to give you estimates of task and subtask completion times?

  Relying on the input of your staff helps to build a team, but it takes more work.

  Using the software is arduous at first, saves time later, and keeps you in front of a screen more often—perhaps away from the people and events occurring around you.

How Will You Use Project Management Software?

The first time, modest users obviously won’t use PM software the way that an experienced pro will. As such, several usage options are worth considering:

  Reporting—Here the project manager uses the software to generate Gantt or possibly CPM charts. The PM might use other software programs such as word processing and spreadsheets to supplement the project graphs and produce reports.

  Project Tracking—This refers to a system for identifying and documenting progress performance for effective review and dissemination to others. Project tracking software is used to compare actual versus planned progress. As the project staff completes tasks and subtasks, the results of their efforts are logged so that the tracking effort stays current.

  What-if Analysis—The PM software is engaged to identify the impact of changing the order of subtasks, shuffling resources, or changing tasks’ dependencies. “What-if?” analysis is invariably satisfying, because you attain immediate feedback. One caution: If you change one variable at a time, you gain a good grasp of the impact. If you change too many variables at once, the picture can become cloudy, diminishing your ability to gauge cause and effect.

  Cost Control—Project managers use PM software to allocate costs to various project resources. This is usually done by figuring out how much resource time and effort are consumed. Be careful that the cost computations you make will plug niftily into the overall cost structures of your organization’s accountants.

  Clocking—By regularly updating project team member hours expended on various tasks and subtasks, project managers can generate reports indicating actual versus scheduled use of resources.

Checklists and Choices

While it can be difficult to generalize about which type of software various levels of users might require, here are some general criteria worth considering:

  Ease of use—Is the software easy to install, with good help screens, tutorials, and customer support? Is the software menu-driven and intuitive? Is it easy to move items around? Are the commands standard and easy to learn? Is the manual or instruction guide easy to use? Are you able to start quickly?

  Reporting functions—Does the program allow for individual revising of report formats? Can these be easily imported into other software programs? Can they easily be saved, added to, combined, and read?

  Charting capacity—Are options easy to use? What about drag-and-drop capabilities? Can charts be imported and exported easily? Are supporting graphics easy to see and to use? Can charts readily be changed into other forms?

  Calendar generators—Does the software allow for calendars of varying durations, in a variety of formats, for different aspects of the project and project staff, with the ability to mark particular days and times, including holidays and other nonworking days? Are these calendars also easily importable and exportable?

  Interfacing—Communication functions with those both near and far are valued features of project management software. Can you easily connect with remote staff, and are data easily shared with others who require online access? Is the software efficient in terms of byte space consumed?

  Report generation—Can a variety of report formats be selected, with quick changing capabilities as well as easy transference to word processing software?

In addition, consider these attributes in the software you’re considering:

  Shows onscreen previews of reports prior to printing

  Offers a variety of formats for Gantt and PERT charts

  Works with a variety of printers and other equipment

  Enables several projects to share a common pool of resources

  Conveys cost data by task or by time

  Allows printing of subsections of charts

  Accepts both manual and automatic schedule updates

Most of the systems you encounter, fortunately, offer such capabilities. So, go beyond a strict comparison of software functionality and consider the attributes, benefits, and services of using a particular vendor, as well. For any major purchase it’s advisable to have a good set of questions. The following is a list I’ve used in several of my books. Ask the vendors whether they

  Offer any corporate, government, association, military, or educator discounts

  Have weekly, monthly, or quarterly seasonal discounts

  Offer off-peak discounts

  Guarantee the lowest price

  Issue a money-back guarantee, or other guarantees

  Have guaranteed shipping dates

  Staff a toll-free customer service line, and help via online chat functions

  Avoid selling, renting, or otherwise using your name and ordering information

  Insure shipments

  Charge for shipping and handling

  Include tax and any other charges

  Provide demos available for free

  Feature free or low-cost upgrades

  Have references available, especially a list of satisfied customers in your area

  Have been in business long

Checklist for your project management tools

After you’ve established your selection criteria, in acknowledgment of everything that your project entails, and in consideration of the various attributes, benefits, and features of working with each vendor, here is a useful exercise:

Decide on paper what you must have versus what is nice to have versus what is not needed, but you’ll take it if offered. Then, using product reviews, critical articles, and the vendors’ own websites, make a preliminary survey of the available packages and how they stack up. A matrix or grid with the vendors listed across the top representing columns, and the attributes vital to you on the left side of the page, will suffice.

You might encounter 10 or 12 possible vendors, but seek to reduce the list early to three to five. Virtually all vendors have online product demos. If possible, observe the software in use either in your own organization or elsewhere. Observing software in use is revealing! You glean far richer information than from a website or, for that matter, a product demo. Someone in the field, using the software, can provide first-person input as to where the software shines or seems kind of dim.

Some vendors allow you to download a full package to use for a limited duration. Sometimes, a particular feature is so outstanding that it outweighs other mediocre elements of a vendor’s overall package.

In summary, if you’ve narrowed the field to a few vendors, you have a decent chance of identifying the one that best meets your needs!

PGOV.org provides an extensive list of the best online project management certifications and all of them need modern project management software tools.

Conclusions about your project management software

◾  PM software has lately become much more sophisticated and more bewildering. Many packages can aptly handle the jobs that you need to do, but might be difficult to learn, let alone to master.

◾  Many organizations loan software gurus to a project or have other project managers who can supply ad hoc mentoring. If this applies to you, you are fortunate.

◾  Don’t become so immersed in software that you lose contact with your project team and the environment that surrounds you.

◾  Choosing appropriate software is vital. Predetermine your selection criteria so that you’re not buffeted by an endless array of options, benefits, and features.

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